Two movements converge in Mexico at CryptoPsychedelic

TULUM, Mexico. — I stepped forward from the head of a long line of American travelers to face a Mexican immigration agent. He took my passport and the crisp forms and scanned them.

“What is your reason for traveling here?” he asked me. I hesitated for a moment. “Tourism,” I said.

Without giving me a second look the agent stamped my documents and handed them back. The next traveler had taken my spot before I’d even stuffed my passport in my pocket.

My response to the agent’s question was mostly true—though perhaps ‘business’ would have worked too. I was bound for Tulum, Mexico for the first CryptoPsychedelic summit—a meeting of minds in cryptocurrency and psychedelic advocacy and research. The event was held in the beach town of Tulum and organized by Psymposia and DecentraNet.

 

 

 

I instantly broke a sweat in the hot, humid air. Shedding my coat and sweater, I hurried across the parking lot of the airport to a neighboring terminal. It was here I’d been instructed to meet up with Psymposia co-founder Brett Greene. Brett greeted me with a large grin and a hug. We set off to meet Oriana Mayorga of Citizen Action, a featured speaker for the event, so we could all catch the two hour ride down to Tulum. She proved to be a great travel companion, as she was the group’s only fluent Spanish speaker. On our way we ran into another Crypto-bound attendee from Iceland named Ivtar and absorbed him into our party.

Oriana negotiated with the smooth-talking taxi agents at the airport to try and find us a good deal. The first driver wouldn’t accept our American money, so we tried exchanging it back in the airport. The fees were astronomical, so we weighed our options. Luckily, we quickly found another driver who happily accepted USD and we resolved to get some pesos later in Tulum.

As the setting sun cast a pink haze over the horizon, our taxi sped down the highway towards Tulum. The conversation turned to the subject of our visit.

“Blockchain is a real game-changer,” Brett professed. “It’s gonna let us do some really powerful things.” Blockchain is the technology that powers cryptocurrency, he explained. He revealed he often speaks to cannabis companies about this topic, so I asked him to give us a primer.

“Basically, blockchain is just a system of peer-to-peer communication for exchanging data,” he said. “Think of email: We both have an email address, so we can send each other messages, pictures, or data. But what blockchain does is it keeps a public ledger where every exchange—between us or anyone else in this network—is logged and verified for everyone to see. You can never hack into or change that record.”

The blockchain structure, Brett explained, and the security and accountability built into it, creates a decentralized system for conducting economic activity.

The conversation in our taxi turned from technology to activism, and we discussed the second aspect of CryptoPsychedelic: the movement to end the War on Drugs.

“I’m pretty disappointed with most of the activism I’ve been seeing lately in our movement,” Brett said. “You can shout and you can scream all day. But if you’re not protesting against the very system that we’re living in, and offering solutions…what are you really marching for?”

“That’s what people are forgetting!” Oriana cried. “How are we supposed to end the Drug War if we’re not working every step of the way to destroy its roots, the racism and inequality?”

After two hours, we arrived in Tulum. The smoothly paved highway gave way to bumpy local roads, more stone than asphalt. The taxi slowed to a crawl and we were joined on the road by bicyclists, dogs, and sandal-clad pedestrians. Oriana looked around at the Friday night crowd. “It finally makes sense,” she said, “why people in Latin America and the Caribbean are so happy. How could you not be happy with this weather!” After dropping off Brett and Ivtar at their Airbnb’s we headed to the beach for the crypto meet and greet.

Our taxi emerged from a cluster of trees into an open stretch of road. Oriana gasped and pointed through the window to our left. Even in darkness, you could not mistake the Caribbean Sea lapping at the shore just beside the road.

“We’re in Mexico!” Oriana laughed.

I stuck my head outside the opposite window, gazing up like a dog at clear, starlit skies of the sort I’d missed for so many years in New York.

 

Katherine MacLean, Alan Kooi Davis, Sara Gael, Dennis McKenna, Joe Tafur, Neşe Devenot

 

CryptoPsychedelic kicked off the next day under the blazing sun beside the Tulum beach. Guests walked freely through the venue, searching for seats in the shade or making new friends at the bar. Artists painted murals of kaleidoscopic patterns while a barista stand handed out free cold-brew coffees and coconut milk mochas. Thirty speakers spoke throughout the day on six roundtable discussions addressing various issues around crypto and psychedelics.

The event kicked off with the Psychedelic Research panel, including experts such as ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, and Sara Gael, the Project Director of Zendo Project. The presenters discussed the promises of continued research in drugs like MDMA and ayahuasca–as well as the challenges researchers face.

Alan K. Davis of Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit addressed issues of accountability in ayahuasca rituals. “In the ceremonial context, there is very little oversight,” he said. “Vulnerable individuals–often women–who lack power and privilege, are at risk for being taken advantage of. My hope is that we can find spaces in every context to welcome people.”

Alan argued against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to psychedelic healing, and emphasized the importance of understanding different cultural attitudes towards medicines. “A lot of our own friends and family in the U.S. who could benefit from these psychedelic medicines won’t necessarily feel comfortable using them in a ceremonial context, in a country that they don’t know where they’re putting their trust in a stranger. So for a lot people, our Western medicalized model may be the most palatable for them to have these experiences.”

Sara Gael of the Zendo Project shared the value of diverse perspectives in helping other people handle psychedelic experiences. Zendo helps promote safe practices and education about psychedelics in settings such as festivals and community events. “We use a peer support model in the Zendo project,” she explained. “Our volunteers have different backgrounds, whether clinical, shamanic, or others, but we train them all to provide compassionate care for those in need.

“Our training has a foundation in years and years of teachings and wisdom much older than any of us, including shamanism, mental health, and psychedelic research. We integrate all of this into our model and share it with everyone who works with us. They then go out into their own communities with new knowledge and tools to support people in a psychedelic space. We only attend several events a year but we have people from all over the world call to tell us they’ve translated and applied our trainings in their own countries.”

Dennis discussed his experience organizing ayahuasca retreats in Peru. “I’ve seen this medicine change many lives and my own,” he said, “and mostly for the good. But I want to emphasize, the real learning goes on between you and the medicine, not the shaman, the psychotherapist, or the guru. Ultimately, it’s up to you to have the experience and make of it what you will.”

Dennis expressed optimism about the future and potential of ayahuasca. “We’ve witnessed this medicine gain more acceptance around the world outside of its indigenous context. Though that has impacted the practice in some negative ways, I think most of the changes have been positive. I think the reason ayahuasca has moved out of the Amazon is because it’s an ambassador from Gaia trying to get its message out. It’s not the property of anyone, but the common heritage of humanity.”

Moderator Katherine MacLean ended the panel with a question: “What would you do with $1 million worth of Bitcoin?” Dr. Joe Tafur, author, and cofounder of Nihue Rao Center Espiritual, an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru, offered a unique answer. “I would create a healing center where I am in Arizona,” he said, “to work with Native Americans and bring ayahuasca healing into their community. I would also continue to support educational programs for healthcare workers to teach them about this amazing research.”

 

Ismail Ali, Brun Gonzalez, Oriana Mayorga, Ifetayo Harvey, Betty Aldworth, Mike Margolies

 

My new friend Oriana joined Ismail Ali of MAPS, Ifetayo Harvey of Drug Policy Alliance, Brun Gonzalez of INPUD, Mike Margolies of Psymposia, and Betty Aldworth, the Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, on the Psychedelic Advocacy panel.

Their talk shined a light on issues of inequality and oppression often missing from the conversations in psychedelic science. “For me this is about MDMA-assisted psychotherapy,” Oriana said. “This medicine healed me. But when I’m advocating for it, I want to make sure that people of color who’ve experienced trauma also have access to it. And that starts with helping build young leaders in this space.”

Ifetayo added a bracing personal element to the talk. “I know so many people who’ve gone to jail for drugs,” she said, “my younger brother who just got arrested for possession last week with his white friend in the car. But his friend was allowed to go free. I’m so used to having cops in my hometown follow me and pull me over for whatever reason. We can do legalization and decriminalization, but we need a reparative component to these policies.”

Mike stressed the importance of personal freedom in drug use. “People need to be able to use these substances in the ways they want to use them,” he said. “Whether it’s in the FDA-approved container—whether it’s in the jungle—whether it’s Katherine Maclean’s farm—people need to have the autonomy to make those choices for themselves.”

“We ultimately have to remove the threat of criminalization from drug use first,” Betty said, “before we can open up the spiritual and psychological opportunities of psychedelics to all communities. When we decriminalize not just drugs we think of as ‘good’ but also those that are highly stigmatized, we can allow everyone access to these different contexts of use and healing.”

Betty continued with a plea for more compassion in different drug use contexts. “I see a tendency in the psychedelic use community to ignore the sociocultural realities that create extraordinary barriers to use for the people most traumatized and who could benefit most from these substances. If we don’t pay attention to those people I think we do the world a disservice.”

 

 

During the lunch break we walked across the street onto the beach to enjoy some tamales, fresh fruit juice, and alcohol. I ate and drank my fill then joined Oriana and Ifetayo for a swim in the cool blue waters.

“I think I might just have to sneak off for the rest of the day,” Oriana said mischievously. Ifetayo and I laughed. We then spotted Psymposia co-founder Brian Normand emerging from the lunch crowd.

“Are you gonna swim?” I asked him, pushing wet hair out of my eyes.

Brian chuckled. “I got a few people I wanna try to corner now while I have the chance. There are some ideas I wanna share.” He was thrilled at how the event was progressing, and eager to build the right connections while he had everyone in one place.

“C’mon, you gotta relax a little!” I pleaded.

Brian scratched his beard, then rolled up his jeans. “I at least gotta go get my feet a little wet,” he resolved.

 

Chelsea Palmer, Vinay Gupta, Jake Vartanian, Max Borders, Gary Lachance

 

The next two panels delved into the mechanics of blockchain and cryptocurrency. “What blockchain technology gives us is the freedom to choose,” said Ameer Rosic of BlockGeeks. Ameer presented on the Demystifying Decentralization talk which aimed to put crypto in simple terms even a child could understand. “We can choose what ecosystem we want to be a part of, what currency we want to use, or whom we communicate with. For the first time ever in human history, you’re not forced to use a government currency like a greenback or a Canadian dollar.”

I thought about our frustrating experience trying to obtain pesos in the airport yesterday. Would this new technology soon make currency exchanges as obsolete as dial-up internet?

“A lot of people don’t have any choices, even to use the greenback or the Canadian,” added Alex Salkeld, a Canadian crypto advocate. “About two thirds of the world have no access to banking instruments. But now all they need is a basic cell phone and decent internet. As excited as we are about it, Bitcoin and crypto doesn’t affect the developed world nearly as much as it does the developing.”

The blockchain and crypto representatives at the event presented an optimistic view of the technologies, touting their potential to support sustainable communities around the world.

“The essence of this revolution is radical experimentation in community building,” said Max Borders of Social Evolution. “Decentralization is about designing systems of governance and intentional communities—some will be more egalitarian, some slightly less. But it’s about seeing if your community is sustainable. This idea of competitive governance makes some of these ideological wars that we now have—at the very least—radically localized and internalized.”

“We’re excited about the confluence of this and other technologies,” said Gary Lachance of Decentralized Dance Party. “You can decentralize manufacturing with 3-D printing, or decentralize energy through solar power, and use that to power desalination plants or vertical crop grows. We can now build new communities from scratch in places where no one has lived before and experiment with new forms of governing.”

 

Sterlin Lujan, Matt McKibbin, Khaliya, Merete Christiansen, Brian Normand

 

A short while  later the sun disappeared and the rain came pouring. The guests huddled under umbrellas and trees while event crew erected a tent for the crowd. The event’s closing discussions tried to directly address how cryptocurrency could support social causes. Soon we forgot about the rain, as a hot red sunset pierced through the dark clouds.

“The fundamental question for us,” said Brian Normand during the final roundtable, “is how do you end the War on Drugs with blockchain?”

DecentraNet founder Matt McKibbin didn’t miss a beat. “With a DAO,” he said, “a decentralized autonomous organization, like Bitcoin. We see how it broke down the old functions of an organization, and how it gave us new ways to work together. So we need to create incentive structures for more DAOs that can serve a specific social purpose. One way to end the Drug War is to create a DAO that puts resources into humans and projects fighting forty years of Drug War propaganda, supporting communities, and defending those who’ve been the victims of it.”

Khaliya,  an expert adviser on healthcare for the World Economic Forum, expanded on Matt’s idea. “Everybody’s ready to jump onto any initial coin offering (ICO), even if it’s a ‘shitcoin’,” she said. “So why don’t we create purposeful, value-based coins that actually embody our belief systems? Because people are just as likely to jump on that as a shitcoin. We can actually take money from Wall Street and use it to create a better society.”

Khaliya posed to the crowd her idea of creating a crypto token to support psychedelic research. The guests cheered as she made an open invitation for anyone to come talk to her about developing the token after the event.

Merete Christiansen, the Executive Manager of MAPS, drew the clearest link between the uses of blockchain and the healing benefits of psychedelics. “Blockchain technology can help us in the regulation and control of drugs,” she said, “so we don’t need a central governmental body doing that. We can see the supply chain and the control of custody of these substances. We can help guarantee the purity and quality of a substance, or help verify the qualifications of the people administering treatments with peer review systems.”

But it was evident that despite the common ground crypto and psychedelics shared, there wasn’t a clear consensus on the way forward for the two movements, and what values they would emphasize.

“There’s this tension because when you use Bitcoin, you say you trust nobody,” said Daniel Shankin of CryptoPsychedelic. “And when you use psychedelics, you trust the entire universe. So somewhere in the middle is CryptoPsychedelic. For blockchain to work there needs to be a belief and trust in the power of community. I’m interested in exploring this overlap between our fields.”

Natalie voiced a thought many of us had kept private that weekend: could cryptocurrencies really support positive social movements, when, for many investing in them, the technology is just a way to make a lot of money really fast?

The crypto advocates in attendance agreed that as their movement continues to expand, it must look inward and be mindful of its effects on society, good or bad. But they stood firm in their belief that crypto will be a powerful tool for good in the world.

“The cryptocurrency field really needs love and acceptance,” said Sterlin Lujan, a writer and Communications Ambassador for bitcoin.com. “All technologies have to scale to meet market demand and that’s not always easy with such a complex and decentralized system like blockchain. I’m constantly thinking about how to use my psychedelic reasoning and compassionate communication to connect with people. All these beautiful ideas are needed for us to continue pushing forward.”

Sterlin explained further how a shift in thought must go hand-in-hand with the shift in technology. “Along with the blockchain revolution we need a philosophical revolution. If we’re gonna raise our children in a nonviolent environment, we have to rid the disease of authoritarianism from the human mind. We have to educate people that we can live freely and self-sufficiently without having to rely on central authorities or governments. By virtue of what it does, blockchain is teaching us that decentralization is more efficacious in society.”

Sterlin smiled behind his horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes alight with determination. “We’re on the precipice of something really grand and magnificent.”

 

 

Back in windswept New York, with temperatures hovering between 25 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m itching to hop back on a plane and explore more of Tulum.

But even with all its beauty, Tulum revealed another side to me. Splendid villas and mansions rose up beside hand-crafted shacks and tents. Americans in designer glasses sipped tequila while children looked for tourists to buy their trinkets only a few meters away.  

I wondered if the sweeping promises of blockchain and crypto really could bring about a new global prosperity. Would not us privileged Westerners see just another tool to enrich ourselves and leave scraps for the rest?

“My concern is cryptocurrency being another medium to exploit people,” Ifetayo confessed to me. “The New York Times recently published a story about crypto people targeting Puerto Rico as their ‘crypto-utopia’, which to me perpetuates the legacy of colonialism. I am excited about the potential of cryptocurrency, but I have reservations about the way it’s being used.”

CryptoPsychedelic didn’t answer every big question, but it accomplished its goal—starting the conversation.

Brian Normand — now with his jeans rolled down and feet dry — is not bothered by the uncertainty. He sees it as an opportunity.

“There aren’t answers yet to these questions,” he tells me. “Because we’re just now asking them. This isn’t going be the last CryptoPsychedelic — I can guarantee we’re doing more of these and will keep trying to push these movements in the right direction.”